There should have been a feature film or a primetime TV series. Maybe one day it will be. This year, the 25th anniversary of the Disability Discrimination Act – a landmark piece of legislation banning discrimination by service providers and requiring “reasonable adjustments” by employers – was tacitly passed. The BBC showed The Disability Paradox, a thoughtful and introspective documentary by Northern Irish filmmaker Chris Lynch. Crip Camp documented the disability rights movement in the United States on Netflix. But the great drama of the parallel battle in Britain, in which hundreds of activists chained themselves to buses and blocked roads, is still waiting for such high-profile treatment.
Instead, people with disabilities were hardest hit at the end of an extraordinarily difficult year. Ministers asked the Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies (Sage) to review the numbers showing people with learning disabilities are six times more likely to die from Covid-19 than the general population. The Care Quality Commission is investigating why some nursing home residents have been given non-resuscitation orders without prior consultation that may cause preventable deaths.
At the same time, disabled people, along with other minority groups whose members are disproportionately poor, have suffered acute economic difficulties. Deficiencies in the design of services and years of cuts in local services were one of the causes of the rise in extreme poverty prior to this year. With 2 million families expected to have trouble feeding themselves or keeping clean and warm when the recession deepens, that picture is expected to darken.
Disability encompasses a wide variety of experiences and conditions, some of which are lifelong, many of which are temporary or age-related. Research has shown that many of the UK’s nearly 14 million disabled people feel that the equality framework does not suit their needs well and that it was better if they had their own watchdog, the Disability Rights Commission.
In a speech last week, Minister for Women and Equality, Liz Truss, said the government’s new approach to gender equality would highlight practical issues such as “going to work” – often a problem for disabled people trapped in their homes due to inaccessible transportation feel. Your focus on enforcing fair treatment should be welcomed. Laws outlawing discrimination don’t make sense without them. But without new resources, such commitments are meaningless. Cuts in social security, local government and legal aid budgets are a major reason why, despite positive developments such as increased awareness of neurodiversity, progress towards equality for people with disabilities has largely been reversed.
Until the worst of the pandemic is behind us, it is difficult to be optimistic about the prospects for improvement, as the low representation of disabled people in public life is another persistent problem. Priority access to the Covid-19 vaccine would signal that the government is serious about removing barriers to participation, as well as restoring funding for the Access to Work program, which previously helped cover transportation costs. As the country begins to recover from this year of the disease, pressure must be put on policymakers to ensure that their ambitions for upgrading do not overlook those with disabilities. Instead, addressing their needs should be part of the long overdue transformation of social infrastructure – with the accompanying recognition that care, interdependence, and differences are facts of human life. 25 years after the ban on discrimination against people with disabilities, the continued failures are as striking as the progress.